INDIAN WELLS, AFP: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer booked a mouthwatering fourth-round clash at the ATP Indian Wells Masters on Tuesday, where five-time champion Novak Djokovic also advanced from the "group of death".
With the three superstars drawn in the same quarter, only one - at most - can make it to the semi-finals.
The weeding out will start in earnest on Wednesday, when Federer meets Nadal in the round of 16 in a reprise of the Australian Open final in January that saw the Swiss star claim an 18th Grand Slam crown.
"I think it's a great thing for tennis, and it's exciting for Rafa and me," said Federer, a four-time Indian Wells winner. "It's a tough draw, but rankings are not the priority for both of us.
"Anything else but a finals, it almost doesn't matter which round it would be," he added of what will be the 36th meeting between the two -- their first before the quarter-finals since they launched their rivalry in 2004.
Three-time Indian Wells champion Nadal was the first through, defeating fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-3, 7-5.
Despite two "horrible" games, Nadal was pleased with his overall effort against Verdasco, a left-hander like himself who has pushed him in the past.
"I played a good match -- very aggressive with my serve, serving well, hitting good forehands, good backhands.
"I think I played much better today than the first day. I played two horrible games, terrible. That's it. For the rest of the match I think I played very well."
The blip came after Nadal had broken for a 2-1 lead in the second set. He was promptly broken to love himself, then Verdasco held with a love game.
But Nadal gained the break he needed for a 6-5 lead in a game Verdasco book-ended with double faults, and served it out without a hitch.
Federer edged American Steve Johnson 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/4) in a match in which neither player was able to break.
Federer failed to convert his four break chances, but was pleased enough at not facing a break point himself.
"I was very happy how I played because I thought he played a really good match," said Federer, who gave up just six points on his first serve in the encounter.
Djokovic made it past dangerous Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who shocked the Serb star in the first round of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics last year en route to singles silver.
Djokovic eked out the first set despite going down an early break, but couldn't do the same in the second.
In the third, however, he raced away with it, winning the last five games with what he called "probably the best tennis I've played this year".
"Obviously against delPo, who has a big serve, to be able to break him two times in a set was great and I'm just hoping I can carry this confidence level, especially on the return, to the next match," added Djokovic, whose reward for beating former US Open winner del Potro is a meeting with 21-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, who stunned the Serb star in their first ever meeting this month in Acapulco.
Kyrgios defeated Germany's Alexander Zverev 6-3, 6-4 in a battle of two of the ATP Tour's most exciting young talents.
With the loaded bottom quarter the focus of attention, fourth-seeded Kei Nishikori of Japan quietly advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Gilles Muller of Luxembourg.
Nishikori booked a date with unseeded American Donald Young, who ousted 14th-seeded Lucas Pouille of France 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
American Jack Sock saved four match points in a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9/7) win over Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Sock, winner of ATP titles in Auckland and Delray Beach this year, next faces Tunisia's Malek Jaziri, a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 winner over 19-year-old American Taylor Fritz.
Meanwhile, Angelique Kerber won't celebrate her return to world number one with a title after a shock fourth-round exit at the hands of Elena Vesnina.
Russia's 14th-seeded Vesnina toppled the second-seeded German 6-3, 6-3 to book a quarter-final clash with seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams.
Williams battled back from a break down in the final set to beat Chinese qualifier Peng Shuai 3-6, 6-1, 6-3.
"(I) wasn't really sure how it was going to turn out today," Williams said. "There were some up-and-downs and errors. It was so frustrating. But I feel like I got my focus more in that second set and towards the end of the third, because I'm just a competitor. So if things get closer, then I think my better tennis is going to come."
Vesnina, the 14th seed, notched her first career victory over a top-three player. Kerber was the top-ranked player in the draw, and will return to number one in the world on Monday despite the defeat thanks to Serena Williams' injury withdrawal from the event.
Vesnina went up a quick break and never trailed. She broke Kerber five times, and managed to stifle a would-be rally that saw the German close the gap from 4-1 to 4-3 in the second set.
"I was a little nervous at the end of the match," Vesnina said. "So I'm really happy that I closed that match because this win means a lot to me."
Kerber, winner of the Australian and US Opens last year, had struggled past 62nd-ranked Pauline Parmentier in the previous round and said she never found her rhythm against Vesnina.
"It was not my day," she said. "I was doing a lot of mistakes. I was not moving, actually, good. But it's happened. I mean, she played from the beginning until the end good tennis, and she was aggressive. So she took the game in her hands."
Eighth-seeded Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova sped past Caroline Garcia 6-1, 6-4 to lead the way into the quarters.
Kuznetsova is in the last eight in the California desert for the first time since reaching back-to-back finals in 2007 and 2008.
The 31-year-old Russian, owner of two Grand Slam singles titles, enjoyed a resurgence in 2016, winning two titles and upsetting world number one Serena Williams in Miami as she returned to the top 10 in the world for the first time since 2010.
"I just fell in love with the game again," said Kuznetsova, who next faces compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who toppled fifth-seeded Slovak Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.
Pavlyuchenkova belted 35 winners as she kept the normally aggressive Cibulkova in check, avenging a three-set loss to the Slovak in Doha.
"I always like to get revenges," Pavlyuchenkova said.
Third-seeded Czech Karolina Pliskova booked her quarter-final berth with an abbreviated appearance under the hot desert sun.
She was leading Timea Bacsinszky 5-1 when the Swiss player retired with a left wrist injury.
Pliskova next faces seventh-seeded French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, who downed 10th-seeded Ukrainian Elina Svitolina 7-6 (7/5), 1-6, 6-0.